Much has been said and written - including an entire book - about Ford's daring, expensive redesign of America's most popular automobile.

And Ford's taken plenty of lumps for the new Taurus, whose distinctive body style and dashboard controls have garnered a mixed response from the public.

"Too many ovals," one car-shopper said in dismissing the swooping shape.

And as the redesigned Taurus enters its second model year, it appears to be losing the title of best-selling car, a crown that Taurus has worn for the past five calendar years. The problem is, Toyota has been eating everybody's lunch with the latest Camry, selling 15 percent more cars than Taurus by the end of July.

The 1997 Camry received widespread acclaim not only for the reskin and driveability improvements, but because Toyota was able to bring the Camry to the showroom priced an average of $900 less than the previous model. Not so for Taurus, which cost Ford a whopping $3 billion to redesign, and it hit the dealerships costing thousands more than the competition.

Ford had to offer rebates and a decontented Taurus G model to even up the score.

And, adding insult to injury, Ford recently has endured a critical behind-the-scenes book about the redesign. Having given former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mary Walton unlimited access to the three-year styling and engineering process, Ford executives were chagrined that Walton pulled no punches in describing flaws and conflicts in the program.

With all that baggage, the Taurus LX arrived in our driveway looking none the worse for wear. The styling has improved with familiarity, looking sharper and more interesting, especially in metallic shades, than it did 18 months ago.

Taurus' Mercury sister ship, Sable, has slightly modified styling that doesn't really work as well, especially the squared-off rear window. As for the appearance of the station-wagon version of either Taurus or Sable, I still can't get next to it. Way too many ovals.

All the Tauruses and Sables definitely are distinctive, easily spotted on the road, where their more conservatively styled competition - Camry, Honda Accord and Chevrolet Lumina - tend to blend into traffic.

Whatever your misgivings about the styling, they quickly should disappear once you climb behind the wheel. The Taurus LX is a good driver, with decent power from the standard double-overhead-cam V-6, balanced handling and proper road feel. The steering is crisp and precise, and the brakes are highly effective.

That multivalve V-6 in the LX displaces just 3 liters, the same size as the 145-horse engine in the G and GL models, while putting out more than one-third additional horsepower. And it delivers the same gas mileage. There's also a high-performance SHO version with a 235-horse V-8 and suspension modifications that doesn't cost much more than the LX.

Actually, the LX price tag seems top-dollar, even for the high level of trim and features.

On the high way, Taurus is quiet and efficient, cruising at highway speed with little fuss. In town, the sedan is steady and predictable.

The LX interior is stylish and roomy, and the unusual control cluster for radio and climate-control functions works pretty well, once you get used to it. The optional leather seating in the LX is supportive, and the back seat roomy.

Despite its singular styling, the Taurus is still a bread-and-butter family sedan (except maybe the SHO), and anyone expecting ego enhancement will be sorely disappointed. It's as mainstream as a Labor Day barbecue, just unpretentious transportation on which Ford has lavished some swooping curves, ovoid shapes and refined driving characteristics.

In addition to the heated Camry rivalry, Taurus faces even more daunting competition from a redesigned Honda Accord with a new V-6, moving it up in size and substance to go head-to-head with Taurus and Camry.

Accord was the perennial sales leader before Taurus or Ca mry, and in the 1998 calendar year, could take back the prize. Stay tuned.

1998 Ford Taurus

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $21,610. Price as tested: $25,455. Engine: 3-liter V-6, 200 horsepower at 5,750 rpm, 200 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,326 pounds. Length: 197.5 inches. Wheelbase: 108.5 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway. Highs: Good driveability. Small, powerful engine. Good interior design. Lows: Controversial styling. High price. Low ego enhancement.